Newsweek strongly questions the Bible, but still coddles faith

February 3, 2015 • 9:30 am

Newsweek is hardly known for going after religion, but you couldn’t tell that from the large article by Kurt Eichenwald that was published in December, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Apparently heavily informed by conversations with Bart Ehrman, who’s quoted several times, the piece is designed to let readers know that the Bible is not a unified work of scholarship (hence carrying the implication that it’s not the direct word of God, or inspired by him), that it was pieced together over centuries from scattered writings, and that it’s full of errors.

Now the readers here are pretty savvy, and you probably know all this. But I’ll just repeat a few points that Eichenwald makes before I discuss his final and shameful capitulation to believers. Here’s what he says:

  • The Bible is an error-ridden translation of the Greek original (oddly, Eichenwald doesn’t mention until the end that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, not Greek), and a lot of the translation is bad—including the famous rendering of the Greek “young woman” into “virgin” when referring to Mary. This, of course, has led to erroneous dogma.
  • Likewise for false interpolations in the Bible, like Jesus’s famous “let-he-that-is-without-sin-cast-the-first-stone” story, which was apparently confected by Middle Age scribes.
  • Critical parts of dogma, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, don’t appear in the Bible, but were decided in big conferences like the council of Nicea, where the Nicene Creed originated. Sometimes these issues were divided by vote, putting the lie to the notion that the Bible is the source of such truths. (I discuss this dogma-by-vote issue in The Albatross.) Not everyone agreed with these decisions, precipitating a lot of bloodshed over things like the divinity of Christ.
  • The Bible contradicts itself in different places. We all know of the discrepancies between Genesis 1 and 2, and between the accounts of the Resurrection in the four Gospels.  Presumably the many Americans who are deeply ignorant of what the Bible really says are unaware of this stuff.
  • Accounts of the life and doings of Jesus are unreliable because they were written decades after the fact, often by people who weren’t on the scene. Thus the existence of Jesus, and details of his life (if he existed) are less reliable than those of Socrates.
  • The Bible sees a lot of things as sinful that right-wing politicians are actually doing now. For instance, we all know that Paul (in I Timothy) tells women to be silent (are you listening, Sarah Palin?); in Romans the faithful are admonished to avoid criticizing the government; and the Bible says repeatedly that prayer should be a private matter, practiced on your own and not exercised loudly in public. Newsweek notes that Republican politicians (Rick Perry comes to mind) regularly violate this dictum.

Well, most of us know this stuff, but it’s useful that it’s laid out in black and white for the religious American public, and that the lessons are given pointedly to politicians. But after all this demonstration of the fictitious and erroneous nature of much of Scripture, does Eichenwald find any merit in the Bible?

What do you think? This is America, so he has to. First, after a long disquisition on the contradictions about the Resurrection, he says this:

None of this is meant to demean the Bible, but all of it is fact. Christians angered by these facts should be angry with the Bible, not the messenger.

Of course it’s meant to demean the Bible, as he says so clearly in the second sentence. But Eichenwald’s osculation of faith’s rump gets worse at the end:

This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity. Instead, Christians seeking greater understanding of their religion should view it as an attempt to save the Bible from the ignorance, hatred and bias that has been heaped upon it. If Christians truly want to treat the New Testament as the foundation of the religion, they have to know it. Too many of them seem to read John Grisham novels with greater care than they apply to the book they consider to be the most important document in the world.

But the history, complexities and actual words of the Bible can’t be ignored just to line it up with what people want to believe, based simply on what friends and family and ministers tell them. Nowhere in the Gospels or Acts of Epistles or Apocalypses does the New Testament say it is the inerrant word of God. It couldn’t—the people who authored each section had no idea they were composing the Christian Bible, and they were long dead before what they wrote was voted by members of political and theological committees to be the New Testament.

The Bible is a very human book. It was written, assembled, copied and translated by people. That explains the flaws, the contradictions, and the theological disagreements in its pages. Once that is understood, it is possible to find out which parts of the Bible were not in the earliest Greek manuscripts, which are the bad translations, and what one book says in comparison to another, and then try to discern the message for yourself.

And embrace what modern Bible experts know to be the true sections of the New Testament. Jesus said, Don’t judge. He condemned those who pointed out the faults of others while ignoring their own. And he proclaimed, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”

That’s a good place to start.

 Most of this is fine—except for the conclusion. If we excise all the interpolations and contradictions from the Bible, and subtract the extra-scriptural dogma imposed later by religious authorities, what do we have left? What we have left is still a book of fiction, comparable to the Bhagavad Gita or Epic of Gilgamesh. Eichenwald doesn’t mention that the Biblical stuff that isn’t overtly fraudulent, or wasn’t added later, is also dubious, including the entire creation story and that of Noah’s Flood, the movement of the Jews to Egypt and their later exodus and wanderings in the desert, and so on. While Eichenwald wants us to stick to the earliest Greek manuscripts as the authentic Bible, how does that help us? Are we supposed to embrace those “true” sections? Ten to one those “true” sections include all the horrible stuff in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, as well as Jesus’s pronouncements about leaving your family and about the world soon coming to an end very soon.

Eichenwald gives us no hint about “how to discern the message for yourself.” If that’s the case, could he give us a hint as to what the message is? Or, if it’s simply up to each person’s judgment, how do we resolve conflicting “messages”? And of what use are churches and theologians?

Finally if the Bible’s message is simply bromides like “love thy neighbor” and “don’t kill,” well, do we really need the Bible for that when we’ve got Confucius and the secular Greek philosophers, all who wrote without the heavy veneer of superstition, deities, and the supernatural? Why read the Bible at all if we have lots of secular philosophers like Kant, Plato, Mill, and Singer, who convey even better messages, and whose writings are actually genuine?

If we must heap our own preconceptions on the Bible to get anything out of it, what’s the use? The book then becomes just a mirror of our feelings and biases. Better to read philosophers who actually make us think about things we hadn’t pondered before.

98 thoughts on “Newsweek strongly questions the Bible, but still coddles faith

  1. “The Bible is an error-ridden translation of the Greek original (oddly, Eichenwald doesn’t mention until the end that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, not Greek)”

    Didn’t they usually start off with the Septuagint, not the original Hebrew? Going to the Hebrew for a Christian Old Testament is a modern affectation. (Hence little differences in OT Bible stories between Christianity and Judaism.)

    1. Yes. It’s why Church Father’s refer to Joshua (Moses’ successor) as “Jesus son of Nun” because they had to distinguish him from the Christian Jesus. In the Septuagint, Joshua is just Jesus.

    2. Modern Biblical scholars have established that the Bible is a wiki. It was compiled over half a millennium from writers with different styles, dialects, character names, and conceptions of God, and it was subjected to haphazard editing that left it with many contradictions, duplications, and non sequiturs.
      — Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, ISBN 978-1-846-14093-8, p. 11


      1. Pinker — not the type to beat around the bush! In a couple of crystal clear sentences sans the worn out equivocations he captures the whole newsweek piece.

        There is a strong consensus amongst modern scholars on the bible’s disparate authorship and lack of unified and cogent philosophical underpinning. I’m curious as to how ancient scholars viewed the bible while Christianity was still a marginal religion in the Roman empire. My impression has been that biblical works were to kooky to warrant any serious attention of, say, a scholar at the Library of Alexandria. And it would take a precipitous economic and intellectual decline in Rome for this state of affairs to change. “Doubt” by Jennifer Hecht is already on my reading list but any other leads would be appreciated.

        1. ‘Veni Vidi Vici’ by Peter Jones is a book for the general reader about the 1,200 year story of Rome. I liked it. In the final chapter ‘The Growing Revolution – Church and State’ I found this quote:

          However, there was little agreement as to what Christianity meant. Philosophical debates based on the scriptures raged, and sects within Christianity were constantly breaking away. But Constantine bought with him orthodoxy. The word for ‘philosophical school of thought’ , hairesis (‘choice’) , now became ‘heresy’ – error – and Constantine’s bishops set about imposing their version of the Church’s history thus far.

          … leading on to the Nicene Creed.

      1. Indeed. Like most male academics, I update my beliefs *vastly* more often than I update my clothing.

        (I’m assuming that “wardrobe” in the above actually means “clothes”, I’ve never updated my actual wardrobe at all, I’m using the same one I had in my teens).

      2. I was born an atheist and my parents tried, not very hard I must admit, to infect me with religion. I found I was immune. The only item of clothing equal in age to my atheism is my birthday suit.

      3. I don’t think I have any clothes quite as old as my atheism, but the style of my clothes hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years: blue jeans and comfortable sweaters, mostly.

  2. Shame he dropped the ball at the end, but it’s still good that he carried it as far as he did.

    I take comfort in the thought that, if this reaches any True Believers™ in inerrancy and what-not, the earth-splitting KABOOM once they realize just how far off the mark they are will likely lead them to eventually throw the whole thing out even if they spend some time along the way attempting to salvage what they can.


    1. Well, Ehrman’s claims are not new. And in fact Ehrman acknowledges that most of what he teaches about the NT is not original to him, but has been known and taught in mainstream seminaries for decades.* So I doubt any ‘boom’ is forthcoming, as all this stuff is old hat in theological circles.

      *In fact one of Ehrman’s main points is that he wants mainstream priests who already know this stuff because they were taught it in seminary to teach it to their parishoners. He gets upset at the fact that they learn sound biblical scholarship and critical analysis in divinity school, but then they sweep it under the rug and avoid talking about it when they go ‘on the job.’

      1. Has Ehrman written essays for Newsweek or otherwise been featured by the popular “mainstream” press?

        What’s new, at least as I see it, certainly aren’t the positions outlined in the article. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson wrote as much, and even he was late to the party.

        Rather, what’s new is it’s showing up in American media, and not as a report of what those wacky militant atheists are up to.


        1. Yeah, but the earth-shattering kaboom isn’t going to come from the fundies because they already know about higher criticism and have been rejecting it for years.

          Now, some nondenominational christians who have never thought deeply about the bible as a compliation? Yeah, this is good communication for them. And let’s face it, every new generation typically needs to be reminded about what past generations already learned. But if you’re hoping for a fundie head-asplosion…no, I don’t think you’ll get that.

        2. I agree. I think this is quite a big deal. I think I understand why he put that stuff at the end too – it was because he recognized he’d get flooded with mail saying something like, “you’re being insensitive attacking a book that is so precious to so many”. I think he’s trying to head some of that off at the pass. His editor might have required the sop too.

    2. You are totally correct.

      One of my former-fundamentalist friends had his faith implode after reading, of all things, Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. Even though she is soft peddling religion throughout, in that book she does clearly lay out the arguments for the piecemeal construction of the Bible. For a Fundie, this is faith-kryptonite. He was done with religion before the year was out.

      I have no data, but I expect that more fundamentalists transition right from fundamentalism into atheism without trying other Sophisticated or Spiritual versions of religion along the way. Fundamentalism has already invested itself heavily against both of those things, so fundamentalists are pre-inoculated against spirituality and other soft religious views. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more people total (or as a percentage) who transition from fundamentalists beliefs to atheism than from softer or more spiritual versions of religion to atheism. The latter are not as serious about the truth claims of their religion and so are less troubled when reality and their religion seem to collide.

    1. But this also means that Newsweek is starting to realize the non believers are a big enough demographic that they no longer have to continually osculate faith’s rump.

  3. It seems to me that Eichenwald didn’t really drop the ball at the end so much as dribble it around a bit. In context, the recommendation to “discern the message for yourself” places less emphasis on the Bible being an actual message from God and more emphasis on taking what you need and leaving the rest.

    That’s what people do with inspirational books, self-help books, myths, and poetry. Find your own message. Make it a nice one. The Golden Rule is good.

    If he’d been too direct and blunt he might have been dismissed as an atheist with an axe to grind. De-throning sacred scripture is a major move. End with a smile and you’re more likely to get a fair hearing.

      1. True — but they were arguing specifically for atheism. From our perspective the article could have ended without the smarm and had a better effect. But we are not the general public.

        As the general public never ceases to remind us.

        If nothing else, the bouncy ball could have bounced higher and ended with a grand panegyric to Faith. At least it didn’t do that. It could be worse. It could be raining.

  4. And he proclaimed, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”

    He left out the “If you disobey my commandments you go to hell where you will suffer horribly for eternity,” and a few other not so nice things.

    Arguing that the bible is good or useful because you can pluck a few nice platitudes like that out of the enormous amount of other stuff is pretty silly and demeans people, in my opinion, rather than respects them.

  5. The doctrine of Biblical literalism at least as I’ve encountered it in my part of the world avoids all the contradictions and Higher Criticism.

    First, as it’s been pointed out to me many times, if you are not possessed with the Holy Spirit then you simply are not going to understand the Bible.

    If you do actually encounter an apparently unresolvable contradiction or untrue statement, then the answer is the fine print in the “Bible is literally true” doctrine: that it is “literally true in its original autograghs”. So any problem with the text can be simply be dismissed as “we don’t have the original autographs”.

    Biblical Literalism is a logic loop virtually impossible for believers to escape. And arguing the truth of the Bible with a believer in Biblical Literalism is largely a waste of time.

    1. Oh, I don’t know about that. The big PEW survey from 2008 showed that the sects losing members fastest were the Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics, while the (xtian) sect growing the most was “nondenominational.” It also showed that only about half of current evangelical christians were raised evangelical. Partly that’s because they make a lot of adult converts, but that shouldn’t cause us to ignore the fact that they are net losers in terms of per capita members. Their numbers may be somewhat out of date now, but unless you have some better source of data, I’m inclined to think the trends they saw in the population are still going on.

      So yeah, a lot of believers escape…and in fact more believers escape from the evangelical and fervent sects than from nondenominational generic christiandom. I think that’s probably why those sects are so opposed to secular education: they are not successful because they oppose it, but rather they oppose it because they see how it makes them unsuccessful.

      1. Good point Eric, and I hope the trend continues, but the numbers aren’t dwindling very noticeably in small southern towns. And the most vociferous ones are the very ones who seem to be the most “looped” in the mind loop of literalism. My main point remains: attempting to present what most reasonable people would consider logical arguments is rarely productive.

      2. I would second this. While the believer in biblical literalism is actively trying to close their mind to anything that will challenge this, engaging in amazing feats of mental gymnastics in the process, their mind does work, nonetheless, even if they don’t want it to. You may not see it, but they experience profound cognitive dissonance. The fundamentalist mind frame is brittle, and so almost everything in the modern world is a threat to that mind frame. The book itself is a refuge from the modern world, but at the same time problems with the book are kryptonite to their belief. They are so crazy and defensive and irrational seeming precisely because they can so acutely feel this threat to their belief. And for a fundamentalist, not-believing is terrifying. So part of their brain is saying to them, “You know, this isn’t making sense…”, but another part of their brain is pleading, “Please don’t abandon religion, you’ll burn in Hell!!”.

        I have many former-fundamentalist friends. All were sincere and probably sounded crazy and unreachable when they were believers. Most lost their faith as a result of information. Of the ones whose loss I followed as it happened, the precipitating events were: all of science, especially age of the earth and evolution, noticing that religious leaders don’t care about actual facts, learning about historical criticism and the patchwork construction of the Bible, and one simply noticed that a Christian group he joined in California had a completely different take on a number of doctrines even though they were clearly just as sincere and just as good Bible scholars as the religious group he left in another state (at a distance, you can always assume that they are lacking in sincerity or scholarship and that is why you disagree).

        Humans are complicated, and the things they say, or even shout, are only part of the story of what is going on with them.

  6. Jeebus, Professor, can’t you take Yes for an answer? “Of course it’s meant to demean the Bible”-no because how can you demean a work of fiction, which he has just shown the bible to be. “Eichenwald gives us no hint about ‘how to discern the message for yourself'”-not his job, and do you really want people to go back to the priests? How can you discern the message for yourself if you look to authority to tell you how to think about it? “It was written, assembled, copied and translated by people” takes away the inerrant-word-of-god authority. “…embrace what modern Bible experts know to be the true sections of the New Testament” does give me pause; however, when bracketed with “written by people” and “don’t kill the messenger” I can read that as a version of the Roolz: don’t send me hate-filled emails and don’t firebomb/shoot up my office. CONFESSION: I haven’t actually read the whole article, just your synopsis. Peace.

    1. I don’t get it. Why can’t works of fiction be demeaned? It can be worthwhile even when everyone understands that the thing in question is a work of fiction. When some people don’t understand that it is fiction that makes it more important and more useful to demean the thing because of real world consequences, not less.

        1. I understand that position well. But I see no good reasons to presume that it is “not necessary” or “probably counterproductive.” I am sure that you could relate particular incidents that support you opinion, and I could cite ones that support mine.

          But, what do you mean when you say “it is enough to tell the truth about it.”? Enough for you? Enough for a particular person the truth is being told to? Enough for society as a whole? Enough meaning sufficient to maintain the status quo? Enough meaning to make a certain amount of progress? What rate of progress is enough?

          I can’t agree with that statement. There is plenty of reasonably good evidence supporting that satire and ridicule are effective and useful tools for influencing changes of minds.

            1. It sounds nice, and I like nice, I prefer politeness most of the time. I accept that honey can be more effective. But I don’t accept that honey is exclusively effective, or even more effective most of the time. I know many people feel that honey is just obviously better in any context, but it isn’t obvious to me because what I see doesn’t support that.

              I have experienced it myself both ways. Honey has worked on occasion at inspiring me to change my mind about something. It seems though that more often with beliefs that I held strongly that being made to experience negative feelings (shame, stupid, embarrassed) was a major factor in inspiring me to take a different look, leading to changing my mind. And I have seen much the same happen to others in other contexts and at different removes.

              I am not saying, though, that everyone should use satire and ridicule all the time. I don’t think that at all. By all means use what tactics you prefer.

            2. The old saw doesn’t really make sense.

              Fruit fly traps, for example, are not baited with honey. They are baited with apple cider vinegar.

              And why is catching flies a good analogy for a debate anyway?

  7. I spent my freshman year in the Stanford Christian Fellowship making a final attempt to become religious. (Growing up in rural Wisconsin, I always fretted over the fact that I simply got nothing out of Bible study or church. I hoped that young, intelligent, and enthusiastic peers could show me what I was missing.) In our weekly Bible study we spent a lot of time considering a single parable at a time. I was struck then how interpretations of each parable quickly left any reasonable connection to the text and became a mirror of the speaker’s own concerns. The analogy I made at the time was tea leaves: You could draw any message you wanted from the text.

    Ultimately, these experiences made it easy on year to give Christianity up for Lent. What a relief!

  8. I don’t think the believers pay any attention to articles like this. The most they might do if they did read the article is take their questions to the next meeting and find out what their opinion should be. The fact that they can so easily ignore science would indicate any written article in any publication would be meaningless.

    The only choir for this preaching is probably us.

    1. I think believers are a very diverse group. Even within particular traditions there’s a surprisingly wide range of views. What I hope articles like these do is help change the perception of the cultural climate, what is and isn’t part of the mainstream.

      Many people edge over without realizing it. “Oh, I already knew that.”

      Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t.

      The line which will not budge no matter what is too big — but it’s not labeled “the believers.”

      1. That view of yours is very inspiring but not the same diverse group I am thinking of.

        I’m more interested in the group, lets call them a good sized part of the republican party who want to install much of their beliefs in our schools or to remove what otherwise, might be passed off as reasonable medicine for the poor and middle class. We should be more careful with our labels but it is hard to separate this political group from religion and who can tell them apart? It’s kind of like separating the terrorist from Islam as some like to do.

        1. Yes, the subset of theocrats will complain about the slim possibility of sharia law, but don’t hesitate to advocate laws in the US or elsewhere based on the Bible.

          People being people, however, there’s movement even within this group. For one thing, the evangelical youth is largely pro-gay marriage. Since the right wing theocrats have advanced that issue as some sort of litmus test for godly government, this is bad news for them and good news for us.

          1. You have a good example here on their youth and gay marriage but then, they had better get on that band wagon as the ship has sailed.

            I am no longer young and do not expect to be around long enough to see them becoming pro science, pro medical coverage and obtaining any understanding of separation of church & state.
            I should also include equality for women and some rights on abortion.

  9. As far as I am concerned the monks and priests and shamans and various other characters that put together the Bible based on hearsay and second hand storytelling, were basically putting together the first WIKI
    . it’s no different than how TMZ
    works today.
    That’s why science is based on falsifiability and facts.
    And why religious texts are basically as factual as Facebook or Twitter .how the Bible has been “trending” for 2000 years is beyond me and defies logical explanation

    1. Well, we don’t murder heretics and then try and erase their theories from history by collecting and burning as many copies of their work as we can find.

      But other than that that small difference, what the RCC did in constructing the bible is sort of like a wiki, yeah. 🙂

        1. I don’t understand what you mean by this, Steve. Which OT? The early Christian one or the Jewish one? What do you mean by the date when the RCC existed? x

          1. The Jewish one, of course. What I’m really reacting to is the implied notion that religion is synonymous with Christianity. The OT is not just a pile of cherry-picked alleged prophesies, which is how it has been misused for the last 2000 years.

            1. Fair enough, the hebrew OT may not have been defended through blood the way the NT was.

              But in my defense, you didn’t say “OT,” you said “the bible.” And the subject of the original post is the christian bible. Which includes the NT. So I naturally took your mention of “the bible” to be talking about the same thing the original post called “the bible.”

              1. Oops, I see what is going on now. I responded to DSG’s comment about the bible, and then Steve Sherman came in and said that my response wasn’t true for the hebrew OT.

                Well, okay, but that’s a nonsequitur response, Steve.

  10. It would be nice if he had some discussion of the blatantly !*unethical*! parts of the Bible instead of only the bits that are
    !*factually*! wrong. (But some would regard that as entailing discarding nearly half of the Old Testament.)

    I’ll grant him that some of the ethical teachings of Jesus are quite good, but that’s a commendation of Jesus the man, not a commendation of “Christianity”.

    His position echoes Bart Ehrman, who holds you can be a Christian and still accept Biblical scholarship but Ehrman is a more forthcoming in saying modern scholarship heavily undermines all fundamentalism and literalism, and that only certain modernistic subschools of Christianity can survive this kind of scrutiny.

    1. RE your last paragraph, I agree with Ehrman on that but my question then becomes, if you have reached that point, why hold onto any of it? It isn’t reasonable, unless you have a prior commitment to the belief that there is a god and that christians knew something about it (despite their holiest of holy writings having been thoroughly demolished).

      1. Ehrman didn’t hold on to it: he no longer identifies as Christian. He tries hard to argue in his books that acceptance of higher criticism doesn’t automatically send people into disbelief the way it did him, but those parts of his book typically aren’t very convincing.

        1. Ehrman argues that his discarding of Christianity is based entirely on pondering the problem of evil (theodicy) rather than on Biblical studies.

  11. … including the famous rendering of the Greek “young woman” into “virgin” when referring to Mary.

    This seems to be a common misconception: please allow me to correct it. The frequently referred-to mistranslation concerns the Hebrew word “almah” in Isaiah chapter 7, which was translated to Greek in the Septuagint as “parthenos”, meaning “virgin”, but actually meant “young woman”.

    The Greek gospels of Matthew and Luke are quite unambiguous in referring to Mary as a virgin – there are AFAIK no translation problems there.

    The perhaps more interesting aspect is that, read in context, the word in Isaiah has clearly nothing whatever to do with Mary and Jesus. The passage is concerned with the Assyrian invasion, more than half a millennium earlier. But Matthew takes the passage wildly out of context and tries to make out that it is a prediction of Jesus’ birth, which it can’t possibly be, either with or without the mistranslation.

    1. The Greek gospels of Matthew and Luke are quite unambiguous in referring to Mary as a virgin – there are AFAIK no translation problems there.

      You seem to have missed the point. The accusation is that it is the authors of Matthew and Luke who screwed up their translation, because they got their OT from the Septaguint. All of the Gospels were written in Greek.

      1. I have on a number of occasions encountered the misconception that the virgin/young woman confusion referred to a mistranslation of a Greek word in the New Testament; i.e. that the gospel writers were not actually referring to a virgin at all. The phrase I quoted above implies that the same misconception had arisen here. That is what I was correcting.

    2. As a bible loving atheist, I have so many quibbles. Let me lay this one out first–‘almah’ is a tricky word. I see no reason to believe that it means ‘virgin,’ but I think it’s something more specialized than “young woman.” It tends to come up largely in royal contexts–but the main thrust of this comment is correct. The Hebrew does not say “virgin.” Let’s be clear about the Septuagint, though. The translators of the Septuagint (themselves Jews, according to most scholars) used ‘parthenos’ for ‘almah’ centuries before the New Testament or alleged birth of Jesus. While it may well be a simple mistranslation, I don’t see how it is one we can attribute to the evangelists (whoever they were!).

      1. While it may well be a simple mistranslation, I don’t see how it is one we can attribute to the evangelists (whoever they were!).

        While the mistranslation may have happened earlier, the Gospel writers freighted it with extra baggage with the whole virgin birth of Jesus story.

        1. I don’t think that’s true; it seems obvious to me that virgin birth narratives were already in circulation. The evangelists just co-opted an existing trope. We basically agree–I just think the bible is less original than it is usually considered.

    3. This discussion is, literally, as old as Christianity itself. Justin Martyr, in the second century, attempted a sorry response to Trypho the Jew’s analysis that perfectly matches yours.


  12. This analysis of the Bible is a pretty bitter pill for most Christians to swallow – that’s why Eichenwald backpedals at the end. I guess we could see this as a good thing. Any attorney knows that if they let something ‘slip’ in court proceedings, the opposing attorney objects and the judge instructs the jury to not consider what they said, the jury cant really unhear what they heard and despite the nice fluffy things said at the end Christians wont forget how dubious the Bible is.
    On the other hand maybe it isn’t a good idea for Christians to know whats in the Bible. I think to a large extent Christian morality is informed by secular society. If they knew whats really in the Bible some might start moving in the other direction. The people today who actually know whats in their religious text and take it seriously are the followers of ISIS

  13. Pace Eichenwald and ‘inerrant word of God’, 2 Tim 3:16 has scripture as inspired by God. One of the Peters says something similar. Admittedly, not ‘inerrant’ but close. x

    1. Dermot – I think that this then leads to the claim by the righteous fundamentalist/literalists that God has also inspired and approved all of the translations, thus their English version remains ‘the word of God.’ Of course they immediately have a problem because many will accept certain English translations and reject others.

      I sent the Newsweek article to one of my “Bible-Believing Christian” relatives, and I believe his response is typical of millions of fundamentalists:

      “Thanks for the link and I will read the article, but want to make this predictive comment about the author before I do. Based on previous experience with Newsweek attacks on Christianity, the author will turn out to be full of vitriol, and will dismiss practically every truth taught in Scripture with a long and tortured argument claiming the Bible is full of contradictions and mistakes and mistranslations. It will be a total assault on the authority and reliability of Scripture, the purpose of which is to undermine people’s confidence in its objective truth, thereby taking away their only hope for salvation. There are certain Christian denominations that will go along with what the author has to say because of their theological cowardice that has developed over the decades, which is the inability and unwillingness to identify sin as sin.”

      1. Douglas E, you could tell your relation that 2 Timothy is a forgery (as are the two Peters). And ask if he would ‘identify (that) sin as sin’. Wouldn’t shake his belief, I suppose, but hey, it’s a little brick out of the wall. x

        1. “theological cowardice” ? That’s a new one to me. But on the other hand, I think it wise to have a modicum of fear for theology- especially as it relates to mental well-being.

        2. Yes, my cousin can rationalize his way out of any scripture that doesn’t quite fit his dearly held beliefs. Since he is divorced and remarried, I like to hit him up on the adultery thing 🙂

          1. Well, Douglas E, the word ‘sin’ and its derivatives occurs 496 times in the OT and 434 times in the NT: your adulterous cousin has a huge amount of cherry-picking to do! Good luck to him with that, from a monogamous and faithful atheist. x

            1. Another favorite phrase to search in the Blue Letter Bible is “put to death” – clearly not too many of us would be around if all 89 or so of such commands were carried out!

    2. In evangelical circles, a lot of emphasis is placed on “inspired” literally reading as “God-breathed” in the original.

      It always struck me that this was like insisting that “sinister” should be read as “left-handed”.

  14. I have a quibble with the description of the “woman taken in adultery” story as being ‘confected by Middle Age scribes.’ It was indeed deemed canonical in the middle ages, and it almost certainly is not original to the Gospel of John, but it is older than the middle ages. It is first attested right around the year 400 CE (give or take a few decades). It was certainly confected (as was the rest of the bible), but I think it more proper to say by late Roman scribes. Unless one counts 400 CE as the Middle Ages, in which case, we need to have a long talk.

  15. Accounts of the life and doings of Jesus are unreliable because they were written decades after the fact, often by people who weren’t on the scene.

    From what I understand NONE of it is understood to have been written, or even dictated by people who were on the scene. Could someone correct me if I’m wrong?

    1. No, that’s correct. The book of the Acts of the Apostles is younger than any of the Gospels. We have pretty much lost the historical Jesus, which seems to me to be a shame, as he must have been a fascinating fellow, whoever he was.

    2. The 7 genuine epistles of Paul are the earliest NT texts. The consensus of serious Biblical scholars is that Acts postdates Mark (ca. 70-75 CE), probably Luke and possibly Matthew (both ca. 80-90), and maybe John (ca. 95-110). Mark because it’s the earliest: Luke uses Mark as a reference, and Acts was possibly written by the same writer, as part two of his Gospel; Matthew, roughly simultaneous with Luke; John later. The date of Acts seems to be very much up for grabs. I’ve seen dates ranging from 85ish CE to around 150 CE.

      No, it wasn’t dictated or written by people on the scene: the idea is oral tradition leading to relatively well-educated street Greek speakers who embellished it, fabulized it, wrote it down, referencing the (mainly non-Torah) 7th to 2nd BCE OT prophecies from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures. One of the innovations of the NT was the idea that prophecy could take centuries to fulfil. x

    3. There wasn’t any scene for anybody to have been on.

      Jesus first appears in the Bible towards the end of the Old Testament, in Zechariah 6, as YHWH’s personally-anointed (i.e., christened) high priest, the builder of the true church in the heavens, the prince of peace, and so on. (Remember, “Jesus” and “Joshua” are the same name, just as “Alexander” and “Sandy” and “Lysander” and “Alejandro” all are.) That was written at least a few centuries before the Caesars, and may well have had its origins centuries earlier.

      By the time Philo was doing his philosophizing, the equation between that Jesus and the Logos was obvious and explicit, with Philo himself commenting on it. Paul’s Jesus is the Jesus of Zechariah 6 with all the attributes of the Logos as described by Philo — Jesus as the Platonic ideal archetype of the soul and contrasted with Adam as the Platonic ideal archetype of the body, all that sort of thing.

      Jesus is never placed at a particular point in history until sometime after the Roman conquest of Judea in 70 CE, after which Euhemerized biographical accounts of him start appearing. The Gospel According to Mark might be the first of these; it’s certainly the oldest to survive. But Mark is unabashed fiction by somebody who didn’t know nor care about the history nor politics nor geography of the setting he chose for Jesus’s invented history. He was just interested in the theology of it and of telling a good story.

      Every other surviving source either directly or indirectly relies on Mark.

      For all the gory details, including the sorts of bibliographic citations you’d expect from a doctoral dissertation, see Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus.



  16. “We have lots of secular philosophers like Kant, Plato, Mill, and Singer, who convey even better messages”. I don’t think Plato belongs in this list – he had nothing but contempt for democracy and wanted to restore totalitarianism (rule by the “best”, ie aristocratic, class). Read Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and its Enemies – Vol I, The Spell of Plato”.

    1. His writing is broader than just politics and governance. His Euthyphro, for example, is a classic. A challenge to theology which, IMO, theologians haven’t addressed effectively despite 2,400+ years of trying.

  17. I see that comments are still trickling in on this post, so I will add something I find both interesting and troubling. Since there are likely not too many conservative Christian folks who regularly read this site, I sent along the Newsweek article to a self-described “Bible-believing Christian” – a particularly hard-core, strident fundamentalist in my book. He had a response without reading the article, and then went on the rant about the article.

    Preamble – Thanks for the link and I will read the article, but want to make this predictive comment about the author before I do. Based on previous experience with Newsweek attacks on Christianity, the author will turn out to be full of vitriol, and will dismiss practically every truth taught in Scripture with a long and tortured argument claiming the Bible is full of contradictions and mistakes and mistranslations. It will be a total assault on the authority and reliability of Scripture, the purpose of which is to undermine people’s confidence in its objective truth, thereby taking away their only hope for salvation. There are certain Christian denominations that will go along with what the author has to say because of their theological cowardice that has developed over the decades, which is the inability and unwillingness to identify sin as sin. (Whew! What a mouthful, Lol!)

    Events in the Bible may not be reported letter perfect, but that does not change the fact of the event occurring. Most Bible believing Christians are aware of apparent discrepancies in the telling of a tale, for example, the Creation and the Flood. It isn’t material that chapters 1 and 2 in Genesis don’t match perfectly, the fact remains that the Creation event occurred. Same for the flood, there may be some perceived discrepancies in the numbers of animals taken aboard, but Noah and his family did exist, an Ark was built, and a flood occurred. I don’t think the author of the article disproved the occurrence any major event that is commonly accepted by Bible believing Christians.

    About the author. He is a severe epileptic which was the result of a concussion his freshman year in college. He is also an Obama supporting radical leftist and loves to write hate articles about Republicans and Conservatives. He has been in trouble in the past for unethical journalistic practices, and when asked about it during an interview he stated that his epilepsy had caused “severe memory disruptions” and that he had a “deeply unreliable memory for names, facts and events. In other words “the epilepsy made me do it.” This struck me as funny because in the second paragraph of his Newsweek article he calls certain Christians “frauds.” So, what is it Mr. Author? Is your brain so totally fucked it doesn’t work right? Or are you a simple, run-of-the-mill, sociopathic, bald-faced liar? My guess is both. You are both a liar and your brain is like a diseased toilet bowl into which Satan and his demons crap their ideas.

    Being vitriolic is so much fun, but forgot to add, the author is such a pathetic wretch that I did say a genuine prayer for him.

    Ludicrous logic. My brother sometimes asks the blessing at the Family Reunion. According to the author, my brother should head for the table storage closet, shut the door behind him, say the prayer in a low voice so no one can hear him, then emerge after the blessing and tell everyone. “It’s okay to eat now!” For you see, the author says the Bible says all prayer in public or where anyone else can hear you is just for show and prideful. Also, my Sunday school class will have to abandon its prayer list. We take prayer requests at the beginning of class, then go around the room and those who wish to pray, pray, and those who don’t say “Amen.” For you see, the author says that the only prayer Jesus wants us to pray is the Lord’s Prayer. So, if you have a deathly sick child, you cannot gather your family together and hold hands and say fervent prayers for you child. The only thing you can do is each one go into a closet and say the Lord’s Prayer in an inaudible voice. None of this “crying out to God” stuff allowed. The Bible may say pray this prayer or go to this place to pray it, but the idiot fuck author takes that to mean you only pray one prayer and in one place if you are “truly righteous.” So, if your plane is going down in flames over the Pacific, save your breath unless you are in the crapper at the time, where you can recite the Lord’ prayer without being overheard. Strapped in your seat? You are SOL, that is according to the shit-brained author.

    The big lie. Mr. Author states the article “…is not intended to advance a particular theology.” In fact, it is intended to do just that. He does not tamper with the basic truths of the Bible such as the existence, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, he does not explain why Jesus is considered “the Savior.” What is Jesus saving us from, Mr. Author? He never addresses the most important issue of the Bible, that being Jesus came to save us sinners from the consequences of our sins. Instead the author advances his own particular brand of theological bullshit. He concludes that Bible experts know the true sections of the New Testament and admonishes us to “embrace” those. He states one of those as being “don’t judge.” He is totally confused or deliberately deceptive in that area. We ARE permitted to judge, but not the faults of others we ourselves possess. He then quotes Jesus [from Mark 12] “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” That’s it. He ends it there with the Golden Rule and concludes, “That’s a good place to start.” I would ask, “Start what?” What happened to the “these” as in “There is none other commandment greater than these.” What happened is the author deliberately left out the previous companion verse, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And Bible experts will tell you that means OBEY GOD’S COMMANDMENTS. Mr. Author left out the most important part of the Bible, love and obey God. He substitutes it with “don’t judge” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” No mention of sin or repenting of it. In other words, the basis of the author’s theology is don’t judge and love your neighbor, which is pretty much the definition of an anything goes theology, whereas the basis of a true and sound theology is love and obey God, which means butt-fucking your neighbor is still a no-no. Lol!

      1. It does make me chuckle a bit, but the bad news is that this is how he and perhaps millions others think. Good enough to be in the Onion or from a poe, but sadly, it’s not.

        1. Yeah, sorry, Douglas: me living in the U.K., you don’t get much of this so my distance from it makes it less visceral and real, therefore funny.

          That said, a disturbing handful of my Catholic cousins in Northern Ireland are virulently anti-Semitic. Like Houston Stewart Chamberlain. I can’t laugh at them.

          The closer it is to you the less funny it is. x

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